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Barack Obama: “There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change”

On 3 August 2015, US President Barack Obama released an Environmental Protection Agency Clean Power Plan for Existing Power Plants. The aim of the regulation is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 32% lower in 2030 compared to 2005.

The Clean Power Plan is 1,560 pages long. I admit that I haven’t read it in any detail (and doubt that I ever will). This post is an attempt to summarise what the Clean Power Plan is, to outline some concerns, and to look at some of the reactions to it. (Climate Progress has done a good summary of the nonsense from climate deniers in reaction to the regulation, here.)

The EPA’s website on the Clean Power Plan is here, and the prepublication version of the Clean Power Plan Final Rule is here.

President Obama narrated a video about the importance of regulating greenhouse gas emissions. At least he says the right things:

Brad Plumer on Vox, has done a great job of explaining what the Clean Power Plan is (and what it isn’t). Here’s how he summarises 1,560 pages in a paragraph:

The EPA is giving each state an individual goal for cutting power plant emissions. States can then decide for themselves how to get there. They can switch from coal to natural gas, expand renewables or nuclear, boost energy efficiency, enact carbon pricing … it’s up to them. States just have to submit their plans by 2016-2018, start cutting by 2022 at the latest, and then keep cutting through 2030. Oh, and if states refuse to submit a plan, the EPA will impose its own federal plan, which could involve some sort of cap-and-trade program.

Three problems

President Obama calls the Clean Power Plan, “The biggest, most important we’ve ever taken to combat climate change.” Which is true, but that doesn’t mean it goes anything like far enough. There are three obvious problems with the Clean Power Plan:

  1. The first problem is that the target is not low enough. Plumer calculates that if the projected 32% reduction were met by 2030, this would amount to a cut of only 6% in US emissions compared to 2005. By the end of this year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance anticipates that the power sector’s emissions will be down by 15.4% compared to 2005. In other words, under the Clean Power Plan, the pace of emissions reductions will actually slow down.
  2. The next problem is that emissions cuts only start in 2022. We simply don’t have seven years to play with when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As Obama said in his speech announcing the Clean Power Plan, “There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.”
  3. The third problem is that the EPA is resurrecting cap and trade. The details are in a separate document (this one is only 755 pages long). This is a problem because addressing climate change means leaving fossil fuels underground. Achieving this requires reorganising industrial societies’ energy, transport and housing to avoid coal, oil and gas. Cap and trade allows the worst polluters (who are precisely the ones that should be targeted in climate legislation) to delay structural change by buying carbon credits from elsewhere.

We’ll start with some positive reactions to the Clean Power Plan, then take a look at some more critical responses..

It’s “great news”

Environmental Defense Fund’s Gernot Wagner:

“That’s great news, to put it mildly. Putting a price on carbon emissions via cap and trade is among the best possible ways to get emissions down quickly and cheaply.”

President of Natural Resources Defense Council, Rhea Suh:

“I was both honored and inspired to be at the White House today when President Obama unveiled our greatest national advance ever against the central environmental challenge of our time.”

Washington, D.C. representative for the International Emissions Trading Association, Tom Lawler:

“To understate it, there has been a reticence to discuss cap and trade policies in the United States [since 2010]. Maybe it was dead, maybe it was dormant, but now it looks like the option of choice.”

President of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ken Kimmell:

“As the former chair of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), I was also pleased to see the final plan embrace interstate trading of emissions as a cost-effective way to lower carbon emissions. The EPA understands that electricity markets cross state lines, and therefore the best solutions will arise when states work together within regional electric grids.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune:

“We’re very pleased. This is something the Sierra Club has been working on, with a lot of groups, for decades. It’s the single biggest thing any president has ever done on climate change.”

(In a statement about the Clean Power Plan the Sierra Club points out that, “Sierra Club does not believe offsets outside the electric sector should be allowed for compliance with the standard.” The Sierra Club has a “Beyond Coal” campaign to close down coal-fired power plants.)

Of course it’s not “great news”

Director of the Carbon Tax Center, Charles Komanoff:

“Notwithstanding the hype in the New York Times — “the strongest action ever taken in the United States to combat climate change,” “an aggressive plan to sharply limit greenhouse gases” — the final version of the US EPA “Clean Power Plan” being released today at the White House by President Obama actually constitutes a marked slowdown in reductions in electricity-sector emissions.”

Co-founder of the New Climate Institute, Niklas Höhne:

“This is definitely a step change… from what has been happening so far in the power sector in the US. On the negative side, while it is an important step towards meeting the US’s international pledge, on its own, it is not enough.
[ . . . ]
“If all countries would do what the US does, we are more on a pathway towards 3-4C.”

Director of Organizing and Strategy of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Kimberly Wasserman:

“If demand stays constant for energy or increases, and some coal plants retire due to the clean power plan compliance plan for Illinois, the coal plants left producing energy might get signals from the energy market to increase production of energy to meet that demand. So localized emissions might be even higher for the remaining plants than prior to when plants come offline. This is also possible in states with similar energy profiles. This is a big concern for the residents who live near to these polluters.”

Meteorologist Eric Holthaus:

“Don’t get me wrong; the Clean Power Plan, if fully enacted as it is, would definitely help reduce our carbon emissions. But to imply that Monday’s nudge toward cleaner electricity will bring about a bold new era in American climate leadership is disingenuous. Growing economic headwinds in the fossil fuel sector—particularly in the coal and oil industries—may bring about radical change much sooner than Obama’s Clean Power Plan.”

Director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, Daphne Wysham:

“[Cap-and-trade measures] allow polluters to profit and do not create an incentive for rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
“The good news is that Obama is recognizing that the climate crisis is urgent and this is going to be an important part of his legacy. The bad news is that he is going nowhere near far enough.
“We need to be off of coal completely, as soon as possible. We need to be looking at 1990 greenhouse gas emissions baselines like the rest of the world uses. We need to be rapidly phasing out of coal and gas fired power. We need to stop drilling in the Arctic, which Obama allowed Shell to proceed with.”

Co-founder and executive director of the U.S. Climate Plan, Evan Weber:

“With the release of the final Clean Power Plan — this administration’s landmark climate action — it’s abundantly clear that President Obama’s climate policies won’t be enough to protect us from the threat of a radically warmed world. It’s time to create our own power plan: a plan to build the political power in every community to show the demand for strong government action to transition us away from all fossil fuels once and for all. That includes moving us away from climate-warming natural gas, which we’re afraid the President’s policies still unduly favor. We, the people, are our only hope for climate justice. It’s up to us to our generation to build power from the bottom up in every state across the country to win back our governments — and our future — from the fossil fuel industry.”

Greenpeace’s Senior Legislative Representative, Kyle Ash:

“While the Clean Power Plan is an important step in federal regulations on climate pollution, it does not reach far enough.
“On its own, the Clean Power Plan is depressingly insufficient and unambitious. And in the light of the Obama administration’s disastrous desire to expand extraction and export of federal coal, oil and gas, it looks even worse.”


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  1. It is nice of MR. Obama to admit that It is too late to react on CC . But , a big but , lateness cant to an excuse for failure and more lateness!!